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UP CLOSE: Lake Placid festival becomes reunion for V licious BBQ team
July 13, 2017

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LAKE PLACID - As he wore an orchid-colored T-shirt screen-pressed with his own beaming bespectacled face across the chest, Varun Mani braved the Adirondack rain Friday, July 7.

He jaunted across the road to Main Street Pizza, departing from his team's impromptu tent refuge at the Olympic Speedskating Oval.

In hand, Mani approached the pizza shop with platters full of baby back ribs created by the team that bears his nickname: "V licious."

Mani bore the fruits - meats, actually - of team V licious BBQ's labor because, of all of the members of team V licious, he is the sole vegetarian.

In order to acquire his own necessary nutrients over the three-day weekend that was the I Love BBQ and Music Festival, Mani needed to get creative. He needed to improvise, even if he didn't know how much this currency of cooked pig carcass would go for in this foreign mountain village.

"I took a couple of trays and went over to the pizza place," Mani said, "swapped it out. I didn't really know what the exchange rate would be."

The forever vegetarian Mani had his sliced calories of doughy starch, saucy sugar and milky mozzarella. Such is the bartering life and times of a vegetarian at a summer festival where meat sweats are more common on this famed speedskating track than exercise-induced perspiration.

After almost a decade of kinship alongside the rest of team V licious BBQ, post-secondary buddies he met at tiny Olin College in Needham, Massachusetts, Mani still refuses to give in to the fatty pig flesh he dubs "the gateway meat." It's the same delicious concoction that earned V licious BBQ numerous prizes in recent years, including a third-place medal this year and a first-place medal in 2013 for the Best Ribs in the East contest.

"I mean, like, you are always tempted," Mani said. "But I'm never tempted enough to do it.

"Ribs, they seem the most interesting. They smell the best. Pulled pork seems cool, but it seems like a lot of blood."

Mani is the vegetarian inspiration behind this team of carnivorous chefs who've chosen him as their emblem. But V licious team members point to pit masters Greg Brown of Somerville, Massachusetts, and Matt Alvarado of Pittsburgh as the key tandem that has shepherded barbecue glory to this group of college friends.

Since 2009, V licious BBQ has annually entered the I Love BBQ and Music Festival, even if this year was Mani's first trip to Lake Placid as part of the team that bears his name.

V licious BBQ's origin story also begins in 2009. It was Mani, Brown, Alvarado and teammate Morgan Lavine's sophomore year at Olin College, a school of just 300 people.

As a 19-year-old dreamer at this engineering school, one known for its project-based focus on entrepreneurship over technical teaching, Alvarado hatched his germ of an idea that became V licious BBQ. It manifested in his mind while he found himself not paying attention in a sophomore-level class, one that focused on material science and history. As he scanned the internet looking for barbecue competitions across the country, he saw just the opportunity he knew he and his friends needed: a junior division (under-21) competition, and it was in Lake Placid.

This was the chance the Los Angeles-native Alvarado had yearned for ever since his seventh grade self became smitten with barbecue while watching the Food Network. He thought, "That's so good. I can do that kind of stuff." So he dabbled "for a long time" with his own barbecue concoctions before arriving at Olin.

Once on campus that first week of sophomore year, he purchased a smoker.

"And that's like totally illegal," Alvarado said. "They don't want any grills or anything (in the dorms)."

No, this curious heavy tar-black apparatus wasn't a kinky-looking keg for Alvarado and his floormates from which to pour beer. What appeared in their dormitory's mail room was the original V licious smoker, one they still use in Lake Placid to this day.

"(The resident advisers) said, 'Wait, what is this?'" Alvarado recalled. "And they didn't give it to me. I had to write all these documents on safety stuff for it."

So the band of friends that soon became V licious stored the smoker in a dormitory shower - legally, they assert. They also claim that they didn't do any smoking in the shower.

One of those smoker-smuggling accomplices along with Alvarado was Brown. He was a foodie in his own right who said the group of friends fell in love with learning how to become barbecue masters because the nature of smoking is "low work, high reward."

"I like it cause making ribs takes six to eight hours," Brown said, "and five to seven of those hours are just drinking beer and hanging out."

"Then you get a bunch of ribs at the end," Alvarado said. "It's amazing."

The growing process as barbecue masters for V licious BBQ was slow trial and error that evolved into a resurrection of Olin College's "Meat Club." The revived club would take part in such philanthropic endeavors such as frying 30 pounds of bacon for cheeseburgers for the entire school. At first, there was a rivalry with the college's dining hall.

"They told us, 'You gotta tell us when you are doing this,'" Alvarado said. "'No one comes (to eat).'"

The rivalry soon bloomed into a strategic, symbiotic partnership through which the dining hall secured whole pigs for the Meat Club. The club then smoked the equivalent of a campuswide meal of meat.

"We were, like, 'The Meat Guys,'" Alvarado said. "And Varun was all with us through the entire process."

Mani was dubbed "V licious," before the advent of the Meat Club, though he also harbors the nicknames "V nasty" and "V money." And though he is a lifelong vegetarian thanks to his Hindu faith, he is a nondiscriminatory noneater of the meats.

In fact, throughout V licious's history, Mani has always helped baste the team's ribs. They include a special rub consisting of applewood and hickory smoke flavors, honey and cayenne that "melt together" with the fat from the pork to generate a gooey glaze.

The recipe hasn't changed in the last few years. But this year, Alvarado and Brown did go "behind enemy lines," as they became certified barbecue judges to better their title chances here in Lake Placid.

And though Mani did finally make it to the contest this year - an event that the team refers to as a pseudo-college reunion - one proud V licious T-shirt-wearing affiliate did not make it to Lake Placid: Mani's father.

"But he wears it to yoga!" Mani said.

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